Mary Zicafoose Tapestries and Prints, Omaha, NE

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Handwoven Magazine, "The Tapestry Rugs of Mary Zicafoose," Nov/Dec 1996

Mary Zicafoose says that her work has been influenced by every textile she has ever seen or touched. Rugs have always appealed to her because she sees in that basic, functional, substantial textile a universality and therefore a medium of communication. Even a rug's shape a rectangle, suggests a doorway or window through which one sees into another world.

Through her own weaving, Mary has become attuned to the "transcendental experience" of working with fibers - the activity's power to trigger both spiritual and cultural memories, to link generations of weavers. She has also come to feel the interrelationships of women, fiber, and spirituality. Over the past twenty years, Mary has lived in many different places and been exposed to the textile traditions of many cultures. Increasingly, what she has learned has reinforced this interrelationship. The Incas, for instance, believed that the gods spoke directly into the
heart of the maker of cloth, while Spider Women of the Navajo legend teaches that "the weaving-way holds power. Through weaving one can come to know the meaning of life and breath."


Like that of most artist, Mary's artistic vision has been shaped by her life's experiences and, to a degree, by chance. She studied fine art in college, earning first a bachelor's degree in photography at St. Mary's College in Indiana and later a master of fine arts in clay at the University of Nebraska. While doing her graduate work in 1979, she happened to visit a weaving studio and became intrigued by the weaving process; shortly thereafter, after weaving a mohair scarf herself, she decided to become a weaver. Joining the Lincoln Handweavers Guild, she took every workshop offered, weaving the usual variety of placemats, blankets, and more scarves while instinctively knowing that she would eventually weave rugs. Her "true work" began in 1984 when she acquired a 45"-wide loom.

Color has always been the most important aspect of Mary's work, and she felt its importance early. Her first rugs were dark. Solid fields of black, deep burgundy, or deep plum were broken only by a few bright stripes. It was an Amish palette, influenced by the books then appearing on Amish quilts. Then two pivotal events changed the character of Mary's work. In 1988, she and her husband, Kirby, volunteered to work in the endangered Bolivian rain forest. "There," she says, "people live life simply - just as it was lived by their ancestors - and with no new rules."
The second pivotal event was the birth of their daughter the following year.

Both experiences indelibly altered Mary's view of life and, with it, her artistic vision. She felt that she had to change the colors she was using. First, she dyed her yarn yellow, a color many people hesitate to use. The impact was not only graphic, but from the energy seemingly released by the color's wave frequency, her rugs "just opened up."

Color's ability to resonate with the emotions makes it a powerful, symbolic tool. Mary now favors high contrast and large, clear color fields. On close inspection, however, one may find that a solid field is composed of many closely related shades. Mary strives for depth of color, graduating the shades or "modulating the frequencies" within the color field or overdyeing yarn many times to produce rich, deep vibrations of color. Purples and blacks, the darks of her early work, remain a constant, but now bright reds and yellows punctuate their fields. "Yellows
and reds sell the rugs." she comments.

Mary always dyes with a current project in mind, sometimes dyeing 20 pounds of yarn in search of the right shades, even though each rug requires only about 7 pounds. The surplus finds its way into later rugs. Her yarn of choice is Henry's Attic Crown Colony two-ply wool at 1,040 yards per pound, which she buys in 100-pound quantities in natural color. She uses washfast acid dyes from ProChem, blending her own colors. For several years recently, she lived in Portland, Oregon, where she had a wonderful basement studio with a dye kitchen that opened into the woods. One of her joys was to look out and see her richly dyed skeins drying in the trees.

Mary now weaves on a 72"-wide Macomber loom with a 70-pound bar to weight the beater. Her warp is double strands of linen set at 4 ends per inch to make the rug heavier, and she relies on valuable threading tips from a workshop she took with Peter Collingwood.

Mary weaves with basic tapestry techniques, preferring to leave slits instead of interlocking the weft at color changes; sometimes, as a design element, she leaves small slits unsewn. She likes borders and hard-edged details, and she often includes areas of ikat.

Her designs, which at first seem highly symbolic, are instead intuitive and multicultural. The cross that frequently appears in her work is included for its spiritual connotations, not for its traditional religious association. For Mary, a cross is an axis representing the intersection of either opposing energies and polarities or the ordinary and the supernatural. It also incidentally echoes the weaving grid.


Motherhood not only influenced Mary's color choices; it also pushed her to make weaving her full-time at-home career. Her work day is usually measured by the hours her daughter is in school, but once or twice a week she weaves from 3:30 to 7 in the morning, her most productive time.

Mary's rugs are custom made and her orders stem from participation in craft shows or come by word of mouth. To keep up with her production of twelve or fifteen rugs each year, she recently hired an assistant to bind ikat bundles, warp the loom, and steam the finished rugs. She always tries to have three projects going, each at different stages - design, wrapping for ikat dyeing, and weaving. The time-consuming job of weaving Mary does herself, to her, the real appeal of the weaving process.

As she explains, "To be a weaver is an almost surreal occupation, placed against the backdrop of linear time and the pace of contemporary life. Nothing in the making of a rug happens quickly. It is a deep inward breath, an activity that draws you in, not out. As the planet speeds frantically along, the weaver sits day after day steadily building a piece. No amount of adrenaline, caffeine, or technology alters the pace of the unfolding."

This year, Mary found her rhythm - "a tricky thing with something so labor-intensive" - and expects to weave as many as twenty-five rugs. "It's really easy for me to work; I'm not fighting it. When you're with the flow, that's when the rewards come." Some of her new rugs will repeat general designs with individual small variations; others will be unique. When she senses that one of her rugs is a "Rug with a capital R," she knows it has a message, a purpose, a home. "I'm the vehicle for making it. This is my service on the planet - producing rugs that interact with the people around them."

-Verna Suit.


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